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Crop Circles

June 7, 2010

I suppose that by now everyone knows that crop circles are man-made, but that wasn't always the consensus. Scientists are trusting people who try to follow the data wherever they lead. If the data are believable and explicable by some mechanism, they never suspect fraud. Unfortunately, this has lead to some problems [1]. A recent article by Richard Taylor in Nature [2] reviews the crop circle phenomenon and the methods used by the practitioners of this modern art form. The Nature venue is apt, since early crop circle activity was concentrated in England, but now it's spread worldwide.

First, crop circles are no longer just circles. The art form has progressed from a simple circle stealthily placed in a crop field, to patterns of circles (see figure), and finally to a free form style, such as a 180 meter long jellyfish formed in a barley field in Oxfordshire in 2009 [2]. The circles have appeared since the seventeenth century, and they were considered to be a meteorological phenomena. An 1880 issue of Nature contained a note by an amateur scientist, John Rand Capron, who noticed these circular patterns in a wheat field after a violent storm [3].

Fast forward to the 1970s, when two Englishmen, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, began to create the circle patterns as a hoax [4]. They wanted people to believe that these patterns were made by UFOs, but scientists stuck to the whirlwind theory even as their patterns grew in complexity. Finally, Bower and Chorley incorporated non-circular elements, such as geometrical objects, into their patterns. These couldn't be explained by the weather. The two Englishmen continued to create their art undetected for more than a decade before announcing their authorship and their methods.

Since then, crop circle clubs have emerged, and crop circles have been used as advertising. There have even been crop circle competitions, and methods of forming crop circles are published on the internet. These figures have become extremely complex, and they embody complex geometrical and mathematical objects. The challenge is to create the figure undetected over the course of a single night. And crop circle technology has progressed to the point that microwave heating is used as a means of stalk bending [2]. The figure below is a 780 foot crop circle formed in 2001 in Milk Hill (England). It represents a double (six-sided) triskelion. Crop circles are featured in the movie, Signs (2002, M. Night Shyamalan, Director). [5]

A crop circle in the form of a double Triskelion composed of circles

A crop circle in the form of a double Triskelion composed of circles.


  1. Jan Hendrik Schön Page on Wikipedia.
  2. Richard Taylor, "The crop circle evolves," Nature vol. 465 no. 7299 (June 10, 2010), p.693.
  3. J.R. Capron, Nature, vol. 22, no. 561 (1880), pp. 290-291, as cited in Ref. 2.
  4. Crop Circles Page at Wikipedia.                                   
  5. "Signs" on the Internet Movie Database.                                   

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